Higher or Lower duty?

(Swami Vivekananda)

A certain king used to inquire of all the Sannyasins that came to his country, “Which is the greater man — he who gives up the world and becomes a Sannyasin, or he who lives in the world and performs his duties as a house holder?” Many wise men sought to solve the problem. Some asserted that the Sannyasin was the greater, upon which the king demanded that they should prove their assertion. When they could not, he ordered them to marry and become householders. Then others came and said, “The householder who performs his duties is the greater man.” Of them, too, the king demanded proofs. When they could not give them, he made them also settle down as householders.

At last there came a young Sannyasin, and the king similarly inquired of him also. He answered, “Each, O king, is equally great in his place.” “Prove this to me,” asked the king. “I will prove it to you,” said the Sannyasin, “but you must first come and live as I do for a few days, that I may be able to prove to you what I say.” The king consented and followed the Sannyasin out of his own territory and passed through many other countries until they came to a great kingdom. In the capital of that kingdom a great ceremony was going on. The king and the Sannyasin heard the noise of drums and music, and heard also the criers; the people were assembled in the streets in gala dress, and a great proclamation was being made. The king and the Sannyasin stood there to see what was going on. The crier was proclaiming loudly that the princess, daughter of the king of that country, was about to choose a husband from among those assembled before her.

It was an old custom in India for princesses to choose husbands in this way. Each princess had certain ideas of the sort of man she wanted for a husband. Some would have the handsomest man, others would have only the most learned, others again the richest, and so on. All the princes of the neighbourhood put on their bravest attire and presented themselves before her. Sometimes they too had their own criers to enumerate their advantages and the reasons why they hoped the princess would choose them. The princess was taken round on a throne, in the most splendid array, and looked at and heard about them. If she was not pleased with what she saw and heard, she said to her bearers, “Move on,” and no more notice was taken of the rejected suitors. If, however, the princess was pleased with any one of them, she threw a garland of flowers over him and he became her husband.

The princess of the country to which our king and the Sannyasin had come was having one of these interesting ceremonies. She was the most beautiful princess in the world, and the husband of the princess would be ruler of the kingdom after her father’s death. The idea of this princess was to marry the handsomest man, but she could not find the right one to please her. Several times these meetings had taken place, but the princess could not select a husband. This meeting was the most splendid of all; more people than ever had come to it. The princess came in on a throne, and the bearers carried her from place to place. She did not seem to care for any one, and every one became disappointed that this meeting also was going to be a failure. Just then came a young man, a Sannyasin, handsome as if the sun had come down to the earth, and stood in one corner of the assembly, watching what was going on. The throne with the princess came near him, and as soon as she saw the beautiful Sannyasin, she stopped and threw the garland over him. The young Sannyasin seized the garland and threw it off, exclaiming, “What nonsense is this? I am a Sannyasin. What is marriage to me?” The king of that country thought that perhaps this man was poor and so dared not marry the princess, and said to him, “With my daughter goes half my kingdom now, and the whole kingdom after my death!” and put the garland again on the Sannyasin. The young man threw it off once more, saying, “Nonsense! I do not want to marry,” and walked quickly away from the assembly.

Now the princess had fallen so much in love with this young man that she said, “I must marry this man or I shall die”; and she went after him to bring him back. Then our other Sannyasin, who had brought the king there, said to him, “King, let us follow this pair”; so they walked after them, but at a good distance behind. The young Sannyasin who had refused to marry the princess walked out into the country for several miles. When he came to a forest and entered into it, the princess followed him, and the other two followed them. Now this young Sannyasin was well acquainted with that forest and knew all the intricate paths in it. He suddenly passed into one of these and disappeared, and the princess could not discover him. After trying for a long time to find him she sat down under a tree and began to weep, for she did not know the way out. Then our king and the other Sannyasin came up to her and said, “Do not weep; we will show you the way out of this forest, but it is too dark for us to find it now. Here is a big tree; let us rest under it, and in the morning we will go early and show you the road.”

Now a little bird and his wife and their three little ones lived on that tree, in a nest. This little bird looked down and saw the three people under the tree and said to his wife, “My dear, what shall we do? Here are some guests in the house, and it is winter, and we have no fire.” So he flew away and got a bit of burning firewood in his beak and dropped it before the guests, to which they added fuel and made a blazing fire. But the little bird was not satisfied. He said again to his wife, “My dear, what shall we do? There is nothing to give these people to eat, and they are hungry. We are householders; it is our duty to feed any one who comes to the house. I must do what I can, I will give them my body.” So he plunged into the midst of the fire and perished. The guests saw him falling and tried to save him, but he was too quick for them.

The little bird’s wife saw what her husband did, and she said, “Here are three persons and only one little bird for them to eat. It is not enough; it is my duty as a wife not to let my husband’s effort go in vain; let them have my body also.” Then she fell into the fire and was burned to death.

Then the three baby-birds, when they saw what was done and that there was still not enough food for the three guests, said, “Our parents have done what they could and still it is not enough. It is our duty to carry on the work of our parents; let our bodies go too.” And they all dashed down into the fire also.

Amazed at what they saw, the three people could not of course eat these birds. They passed the night without food, and in the morning the king and the Sannyasin showed the princess the way, and she went back to her father.

Then the Sannyasin said to the king, “King, you have seen that each is great in his own place. If you want to live in the world, live like those birds, ready at any moment to sacrifice yourself for others. If you want to renounce the world, be like that young man to whom the most beautiful woman and a kingdom were as nothing. If you want to be a householder, hold your life a sacrifice for the welfare of others; and if you choose the life of renunciation, do not even look at beauty and money and power. Each is great in his own place, but the duty of the one is not the duty of the other.

The Emperor’s three questions

(Leo Tolstoy)
One day it occurred to a certain emperor that if he only knew the answers to 
three questions, he would never stray in any matter.

What is the best time to do each thing? Who are the most important people to 
work with? What is the most important thing to do at all times?

The emperor issued a decree throughout his kingdom announcing that whoever 
could answer the questions would receive a great reward. Many who read the 
decree made their way to the palace at once, each person with a different 

In reply to the first question, one person advised that the emperor make up a 
thorough time schedule, consecrating every hour, day, month, and year for 
certain tasks and then follow the schedule to the letter. Only then could he 
hope to do every task at the right time.

Another person replied that it was impossible to plan in advance and that the 
emperor should put all vain amusements aside and remain attentive to everything 
in order to know what to do at what time.

Someone else insisted that, by himself, the emperor could never hope to have 
all the foresight and competence necessary to decide when to do each and every 
task and what he really needed was to set up a Council of the Wise and then to 
act according to their advice.

Someone else said that certain matters required immediate decision and could 
not wait for consultation, but if he wanted to know in advance what was going 
to happen he should consult magicians and soothsayers.

The responses to the second question also lacked accord.

One person said that the emperor needed to place all his trust in 
administrators, another urged reliance on priests and monks, while others 
recommended physicians. Still others put their faith in warriors.

The third question drew a similar variety of answers. Some said science was the 
most important pursuit. Others insisted on religion. Yet others claimed the 
most important thing was military skill.

The emperor was not pleased with any of the answers, and no reward was given.

After several nights of reflection, the emperor resolved to visit a hermit who 
lived up on the mountain and was said to be an enlightened man. The emperor 
wished to find the hermit to ask him the three questions, though he knew the 
hermit never left the mountains and was known to receive only the poor, 
refusing to have anything to do with persons of wealth or power. So the emperor 
disguised himself as a simple peasant and ordered his attendants to wait for 
him at the foot of the mountain while he climbed the slope alone to seek the 

Reaching the holy man's dwelling place, the emperor found the hermit digging a 
garden in front of his hut. When the hermit saw the stranger, he nodded his 
head in greeting and continued to dig. The labor was obviously hard on him. He 
was an old man, and each time he thrust his spade into the ground to turn the 
earth, he heaved heavily.

The emperor approached him and said, "I have come here to ask your help with 
three questions: When is the best time to do each thing? Who are the most 
important people to work with? What is the most important thing to do at all 

The hermit listened attentively but only patted the emperor on the shoulder and 
continued digging. The emperor said, "You must be tired. Here, let me give you 
a hand with that." The hermit thanked him, handed the emperor the spade, and 
then sat down on the ground to rest.

After he had dug two rows, the emperor stopped and turned to the hermit and 
repeated his three questions. The hermit still did not answer, but instead 
stood up and pointed to the spade and said, "Why don't you rest now? I can take 
over again." But the emperor continued to dig. One hour passed, then two. 
Finally the sun began to set behind the mountain. The emperor put down the 
spade and said to the hermit, "I came here to ask if you could answer my three 
questions. But if you can't give me any answer, please let me know so that I 
can get on may way home."

The hermit lifted his head and asked the emperor, "Do you hear someone running 
over there?" The emperor turned his head. They both saw a man with a long white 
beard emerge from the woods. He ran wildly, pressing his hands against a bloody 
wound in his stomach. The man ran toward the emperor before falling unconscious 
to the ground, where he lay groaning. Opening the man's clothing, the emperor 
and hermit saw that the man had received a deep gash. The emperor cleaned the 
wound thoroughly and then used his own shirt to bandage it, but the blood 
completely soaked it within minutes. He rinsed the shirt out and bandaged the 
wound a second time and continued to do so until the flow of blood had stopped.

At last the wounded man regained consciousness and asked for a drink of water. 
The emperor ran down to the stream and brought back a jug of fresh water. 
Meanwhile, the sun had disappeared and the night air had begun to turn cold. 
The hermit gave the emperor a hand in carrying the man into the hut where they 
laid him down on the hermit's bed. The man closed his eyes and lay quietly. The 
emperor was worn out from the long day of climbing the mountain and digging the 
garden. Leaning against the doorway, he fell asleep. When he rose, the sun had 
already risen over the mountain. For a moment he forgot where he was and what 
he had come here for. He looked over to the bed and saw the wounded man also 
looking around him in confusion. When he saw the emperor, he stared at him 
intently and then said in a faint whisper, "Please forgive me."

"But what have you done that I should forgive you?" the emperor asked.

"You do not know me, your majesty, but I know you. I was your sworn enemy, and 
I had vowed to take vengeance on you, for during the last war you killed my 
brother and seized my property. When I learned that you were coming alone to 
the mountain to meet the hermit, I resolved to surprise you on your way back to 
kill you. But after waiting a long time there was still no sign of you, and so 
I left my ambush in order to seek you out. But instead of finding you, I came 
across your attendants, who recognized me, giving me this wound. Luckily, I 
escaped and ran here. If I hadn't met you I would surely be dead by now. I had 
intended to kill you, but instead you saved my life! I am ashamed and grateful 
beyond words. If I live, I vow to be your servant for the rest of my life, and 
I will bid my children and grandchildren to do the same. Please grant me your 

The emperor was overjoyed to see that he was so easily reconciled with a former 
enemy. He not only forgave the man but promised to return all the man's 
property and to send his own physician and servants to wait on the man until he 
was completely healed. After ordering his attendants to take the man home, the 
emperor returned to see the hermit. Before returning to the palace the emperor 
wanted to repeat his three questions one last time. He found the hermit sowing 
seeds in the earth they had dug the day before.

The hermit stood up and looked at the emperor. "But your questions have already 
been answered."

"How's that?" the emperor asked, puzzled.

"Yesterday, if you had not taken pity on my age and given me a hand with 
digging these beds, you would have been attacked by that man on your way home. 
Then you would have deeply regretted not staying with me. Therefore the most 
important time was the time you were digging in the beds, the most important 
person was myself, and the most important pursuit was to help me. Later, when 
the wounded man ran up here, the most important time was the time you spent 
dressing his wound, for if you had not cared for him he would have died and you 
would have lost the chance to be reconciled with him. Likewise, he was the most 
important person, and the most important pursuit was taking care of his wound. 
Remember that there is only one important time and is Now. The present moment 
is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is 
always the person with whom you are, who is right before you, for who knows if 
you will have dealings with any other person in the future. The most important 
pursuit is making that person, the one standing at you side, happy, for that 
alone is the pursuit of life."

On Prayer

(Kahlil Gibran)

Then a priestess said, “Speak to us of Prayer.”

And he answered, saying:

You pray in your distress and in your need; would that you might pray also in the fullness of your joy and in your days of abundance.

For what is prayer but the expansion of yourself into the living ether?

And if it is for your comfort to pour your darkness into space, it is also for your delight to pour forth the dawning of your heart.

And if you cannot but weep when your soul summons you to prayer, she should spur you again and yet again, though weeping, until you shall come laughing.

When you pray you rise to meet in the air those who are praying at that very hour, and whom save in prayer you may not meet.

Therefore let your visit to that temple invisible be for naught but ecstasy and sweet communion.

For if you should enter the temple for no other purpose than asking you shall not receive.

And if you should enter into it to humble yourself you shall not be lifted:

Or even if you should enter into it to beg for the good of others you shall not be heard.

It is enough that you enter the temple invisible.

I cannot teach you how to pray in words.

God listens not to your words save when He Himself utters them through your lips.

And I cannot teach you the prayer of the seas and forests and the mountains.

But you who born of the mountains and the forests and the seas can find their prayer in your heart.,

And if you but listen in the stillness of the night you shall hear then saying in silence,

“Our God, who art our winged self, it is thy will in us that willeth.

It is thy desire in us that desireth.

It is thy urge in us that would turn our nights, which are thine, into days which are thine also.

We cannot ask thee for aught, for thou knowest our needs before they are born in us:

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all.”

On Pain

(Kahlil Gibran)

And a woman spoke, saying, “Tell us of Pain.”

And he said:

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understandng.

Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.

And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;

And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.

And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.

Much of your pain is self-chosen.

It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.

Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility:

For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,

And the cup he brings, though it burns your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.

The Wise King

(Kahlil Gibran)

Once there ruled in the distant city of Wirani a king who was both mighty and wise. And he was feared for his might and loved for his wisdom.

Now, in the heart of that city was a well, whose water was cool and crystalline, from which all the inhabitants drank, even the king and his courtiers; for there was no other well.

One night when all were asleep, a witch entered the city, and poured seven drops of strange liquid into the well, and said, “From this hour he who drinks this water shall become mad.”

Next morning all the inhabitants, save the king and his lord chamberlain, drank from the well and became mad, even as the witch had foretold.

And during that day the people in the narrow streets and in the market places did naught but whisper to one another, “The king is mad. Our king and his lord chamberlain have lost their reason. Surely we cannot be ruled by a mad king. We must dethrone him.”

That evening the king ordered a golden goblet to be filled from the well. And when it was brought to him he drank deeply, and gave it to his lord chamberlain to drink.

And there was great rejoicing in that distant city of Wirani, because its king and its lord chamberlain had regained their reason.

The Madman

(Kahlil Gibran)

It was in the garden of a madhouse that I met a youth with a face pale and lovely and full of wonder. And I sat beside him upon the bench, and I said, “Why are you here?”

And he looked at me in astonishment, and he said, “It is an unseemly question, yet I will answer you. My father would make of me a reproduction of himself; so also would my uncle. My mother would have me the image of her seafaring husband as the perfect example for me to follow. My brother thinks I should be like him, a fine athlete.

“And my teachers also, the doctor of philosophy, and the music-master, and the logician, they too were determined, and each would have me but a reflection of his own face in a mirror.

“Therefore I came to this place. I find it more sane here. At least, I can be myself.”

Then of a sudden he turned to me and he said, “But tell me, were you also driven to this place by education and good counsel?”

And I answered, “No, I am a visitor.”

And he answered, “Oh, you are one of those who live in the madhouse on the other side of the wall.”

On Friendship

(The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran)

And a youth said, “Speak to us of Friendship.”

Your friend is your needs answered.

He is your field which you sow with love and reap with thanksgiving.

And he is your board and your fireside.

For you come to him with  your hunger and you seek him for peace.

When your friend speaks his mind you fear not the “nay” in your own mind, nor do you withhold the “ay”.

And when he is silent your heart ceases not to listen to his heart;

For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unacclaimed.

When you part from your friend, you grieve not;

For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.

And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.

For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its own mystery is not love but a net cast forth: and only the unprofitable is caught.

And let your best be for your friend.

If he must know the ebb of your tide, let him know the flood also.

For what is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill?

Seek him always with hours to live.

For it is his to fill your need, but not your emptiness.

And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures.

For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.

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